Rachel Weisz is not optimistic about how far #MeToo has come. When we meet, it’s almost been one year to the day since Ronan Farrow broke the Harvey Weinstein story in The New Yorker, and the world is reflecting on how the movement has changed and disrupted the power and misogyny of men, particularly in Hollywood.
“I don’t think it should be a celebration,” explains Weisz, of her possibly controversial statement. “It’s more about strength in numbers. I think it’s really hard for women to be heard and taken seriously. I’m thrilled that it’s happening, but I feel like the tone shouldn’t be of celebration. It’s very moving when you stop to think about it.” Her colleague and co-star, Emma Stone, who is sitting next to her, agrees: “And what a horrible thing to be moved by – that it also happened to someone else.”
This dissident scepticism around a campaign that has been embraced by millions fits neatly with the pair’s latest project, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the polarising mind behind cult favourites The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. A subversive comedy with real drama, The Favourite leaves you in a state of confusion that ends up becoming enjoyable, but it’s the characters that really grab you by the throat and don’t let go for two hours. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, an older, sick, childlike woman who has replaced her 17 lost children with 17 rabbits she keeps in her room. Vying to become the eponymous favourite of the queen are Lady Sarah (Weisz) and Abigail (Stone), who will stop at nothing to gain the queen’s trust, love and, ultimately, shared power.
“Sometimes, period films can be very musty like an old museum and a bit strict. Boring, basically,” says Weisz. “But this was so fresh, raw and visceral, shocking, funny and ridiculous. In some ways it doesn’t take itself seriously and then it takes itself very seriously.” Stone took more convincing, as her character, Abigail, takes more time to become as layered, twisted and downright manipulative as Queen Anne and Lady Sarah, but she eventually came round. “I loved my character; I thought the way she unfolded was so exciting. At the start, she was very straightforward, but then as the story went on she had so many layers, she was complicated and manipulative – it was a no-brainer.”
“Nice girls don’t make for very good drama,” says Weisz, knowing The Favourite serves as more than enough evidence. “Abigail’s trying to escape abuse and poverty, Sarah’s running a whole country – they’re not nice girls, no. But most male leads aren’t ‘nice’. Being nice is boring.” Stone agrees, “I get directors telling me to ‘smile more’.” “And when you’re walking down the street, too,” Weisz says. “You’re just trying to walk and think, 'I’m not there to decorate a man’s view.'”
While the women are making decisions, creating the story, the men are worrying about their hair and make-up and playing doltish parlour games
A plotline not usually seen in an 18th-century drama about a monarch is lesbian sex. In the queen’s bed, in a library, through letters; and, while The Favourite is directed by a man, at no point does the physical act seem gratuitous or exploitative – in fact, it was the actors themselves who decided how far the nudity would go. There have, of course, been rumblings of disquiet about how accurate the queen’s sexual relationship with Abigail and Sarah really is, not that Weisz and Stone let that affect the way they played the characters. “In real letters, there were some suggestions of a romantic relationship between Sarah and Anne, but it didn’t necessarily go that way,” explains Weisz.
Through these three women, gender politics aren’t just turned upside-down, they’re thrown out of a 20-storey window, with Queen Anne, Lady Sarah and Abigail taking up the room and roles traditionally reserved for men. The women speak to their male subordinates with a blatant disregard for their feelings – while the women are making decisions and creating the story, the men are worrying about their hair and make-up and playing doltish parlour games. “If it was three men, it would be very different,” says Weisz. “The story uses things that women play to their advantage – like the idea of an ingenue. What’s traditionally submissive in an ingenue, being sweet and wide-eyed, Sarah doesn’t have that. She doesn’t have those qualities, she’s more masculine, but they’re not – they’re also feminine.” Abigail, on the other hand, is an archetype of the ingenue Weisz is referring to and Stone couldn’t wait to flip it on its head. “It works for her to an extent, but then she realises that’s all she’ll ever have and she’s trapped. It’s the ‘cool girl’ trope – the idea that ‘I’m one of the guys’ but you never really see the backstory to that idea of a woman.”
As for the idea of the “nice woman” on screen – a trope Weisz believes came into play during the 80s and 90s era of filmmaking – the actors are happy to see it come to an end. “Have you seen Melissa McCarthy’s new film?” she asks, presumably referring to upcoming Lee Israel biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me? “She is really not nice in that. She’s so grumpy that it’s fabulous. I’m in love with her as a character, even though she’s impossible.” Stone points out that it’s a very common character trait for male actors. “We look at them and go, oh, there’s something kind of sexy about the fact that they’re assertive or mean. They’re Robin Hood. They’re doing bad things for the right reason. There’s probably been more of an acceptance of that because it’s masculine.”
The Favourite doesn’t exist to make a comment on the state of Hollywood post-#MeToo, neither is it there to analyse the power of women in our modern society – but that’s not to say it doesn’t. Nestled between the screaming matches and the Brexit jokes (there are references to Britain being “better together” when it comes to the war) is a meaningful, if bizarre, statement about what we allow women to be on screen and what they really are. And, sometimes, what they are is a really horrible person.
The Favourite is in cinemas now